In the spring, new joy, new life. I told J that “The Sweetest Thing” was her song. She and I spent a lot of days and nights wandering parks in the city, parks whose names I have now forgotten. There was one with a big concrete cupola dome; you had to stand about a hundred foot away from the dome, run up to it to generate inertia, in order to climb to the top where we would often sit late into the night, looking at the deepest darkest blue of the night sky. We took a lot of pictures, her smile captured like an icecream in the sun. We thought it would be nice to rent a child for a day. A kid for a day would be fun but more than a day might interfere with our own growing up. She worked at a new Indian restaurant as a waitress (in the sky) but I think she never liked it and quit very soon. We had little adventures. Like rock climbers, we climbed up the dizzying side of my apartment--several floors up against a sheer wall--when we got locked out. She would call me, come over, do weird math problems on my bed, and fall asleep, her full lips as dry as leaves. When we parted the next morning, I would sit there and listen to Tim for the three hundredth time wondering if there was a way to “hold my life, ‘cause I just might lose it.” She had an impassive regal nature at times, her face, her posture, her sunglasses, and I would call her my Joan of Arc.
With J, I also discovered the multitudes of meanings within mix tapes, mostly in the making of them, but also in the giving of them, a topic given much critical attention by the dude who later wrote Hi Fidelity. I spent hours laboring over every beginning, every end of a side, just to make J listen to Firehose’s "In Memory of Elizabeth Cotton” or the Housemartins’ “Johannesburg,” two utterly beautiful songs that I earnestly believed would show, nay, shockingly prove that what was all around us on the radio, on TV, in books, in civic life all over the world, was shallow, cheap, and soulless since in this little secret world of music, there was so much beauty and depth that I desperately wanted to share.
Like much of what gives adolescence (or delayed adolescence) its charge or inspiration, that “beauty” had value only in opposition to what I considered “ugly.” We did not live in a bubble. Stuff from the outside was always present, at least as background radiation. At that time, the cultural ambiance included hair metal which seemed so awful then that so many years later, I still find little joy in the ironic celebration of Motley Crue, Poison, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Dio, Whitesnake, and many many other bands on VH1. They were terrible then, and some things remain just as terrible even if you add the knowing wink of awareness. There’s nothing wrong with destroying the idiotic demarcations between high and low culture, but it’s another thing to worship the equation that says: Terrible Music + Ten Years Later = Cool Ironic T-shirt.
What is “good” music? What is “terrible” music? It is taste after all. What makes sense in someone’s world view is all that matters. To some people, music is stuff you were interested in as a young person but retain only a vague interest as an adult. For those people, the difference between good and bad music—or indeed the definitions of each—are based on a set of assumptions that would frustrate those who invest their emotions, their fucking lives and careers in the production or consumption of music.
What is good and what is bad music is an intensely personal thing on the one hand. Yet, it is also an intensely shared decision, since we are mostly driven to consume certain types of music not because they have some intrinsic value of goodness or badness but because others have let it be known that that music is worth consuming. Writers for entertainment magazines and newspapers and blogs, journalists on TV, posters at record stores—in other words, advertising—forces a consensus of consumption.
The goal is to create the largest consensus possible, so that millions of people will buy an album like Nevermind in 1991-92. But there are smaller consensuses too: for people of all different tastes, niches, and demographics. These consensuses typically have a brief window, through which acts or genres pass through, after which they are replaced by other acts or genres.
Does that mean that there is no absolute good or bad music? That we are led around like sheep by decisions other people make about what is good or bad? I hope not. I like to think that the music I like is the music I like because it is so good, because it moves me. But I can’t escape the feeling that much of the music I like(d), I discovered because it represented certain things, pre-packaged for a pre-packaged lifestyle, an ideology for disenfranchised youth seeking to avoid being part of the big (or biggest) consensus. This was especially true in college: my goal was to be part of a Small Consensus, but a consensus nevertheless. It’s no fun to like music if no one in the world has ever heard it (let alone heard of it). But there is a fine line and it is easy to get caught up in received knowledge. For us back then it was easy to owe our tastes to an already established canon. By the time I was in college, many people, including such joyless arbiters of good taste as Rolling Stone or Spin magazine, had created Rock History [tm], eras of self-conscious myth-building told in important looking history books on rock music that communicated gravitas. These magazines and books were supposed to tell us what was good and what was bad. I hated those books and magazines but read them all the time.
J was really the first American born desi I’d ever hung out with at any length (beyond my cousins back in Illinois). It was hard to be prejudiced once you’d met her—she was so amazingly disarming with her pictures of Rekha, tapes of Hindi film songs, and interest in the culture of the Indian subcontinent. She also had a big social network of Americans of desi origin, kids who I saw occasionally at parties and things but who I also generally avoided. But if I felt uncomfortable in these contiguous demographics, I also felt that the divisions between Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis were whitewashed here out in the wilderness away from “home.” Our brownness trumped any nationalistic impulses and rarely, if ever, was political or religious identity an issue. The many desi friends I had were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Americans, and it seems so striking in the post-2001 world to think that none of us gave it the slightest thought. Race was more important than your passport. Being a mutt of sorts, neither a “true” desi, nor one of the American variety, I felt an acute sense of non-belonging to each subculture. I never liked Hindi films, I barely understood a word of the language, and as I drifted away from the idea of home, I became severely dislocated from a grounding in any culture except perhaps my adopted one of Western pop music, a language that seemed to me as universal as Esperanto. So…whither the subcontinent (or “South Asia” as it became more common in the ‘90s) in my imagination?
The subcontinent was alive in my imagination only through the eyes of desis I knew, principally J, who had grown up in a small town on the Texas border with Mexico and whose identity seemed so perfectly formed across the various intersections of her background even though she was so precociously young.
J was a big fan of Madonna ("I'm so excited 'cause you're my best friend...") and top 40 pop music in general but we found common ground—our private and brief musical consensus—in the odd and coincidental strands that intertwined for us in that spring, somewhere between Madonna and the Waterboys, music about possibilities. Rock’n’roll—at least the best rock’n’roll—is about being young, and the music that I associate with that time is very young: the voice of Michael Stipe on “Gardening at Night” or the cathartic noise of Husker Du's Warehouse: Songs and Stories. It was the first time I discovered that music that reminded you of something could be much more powerful than music that actually was, if that makes any sense.
Now, hundreds of years later, I no longer remember how or what I felt about J but I can redraw the skeleton of those times so clearly in the distant murmur of early R.E.M. or Morrissey’s first solo single which came out in the spring sometime. “Suedehead” was a wonderful and insidious spoonful of pop music bathed in pathos, bathos, and the ringing chimes of guitars and pianos transmitted directly from some heavenly recording studio. When J once tried to sneak a peak at my personal diaries, the song coincidentally mirrored reality: “You had to sneak into my room just to read my diary / It was just to see, just to see, all the things you knew I’d written about you . . .”
It was Morrissey’s first single, but also his best ever, rivaling everything that the Smiths ever put out. We had expected Johnny Marr to come out four cylinders firing from the Smiths, but he weirdly disappeared for what seemed like decades. Children by the millions who had waited for Johnny were instead treated to a spate of brilliant singles from Morrissey. So began my search for every Morrissey 12”, each one hidden with myriads of strange tracks never to be found on albums. My favorite b-side of the period: “Sister I’m a Poet,” another Stephen Street gem which was the soundtrack to many of my treks from the apartment to class on gray fall mornings.
The album itself, Viva Hate (how, at age 22, that title seemed to be so appropriate…), was fantastic, filled with peculiar songs about marginal characters, once on the cusp of greatness/love/sex/acceptance, now tossed to the detritus of adulthood.
If I wince now in embarrassment when I hear most of Morrissey’s self-absorbed ruminations (“Late Night on Maudlin Street” anyone?—a seemingly endless navel gazing endurance test), other songs, principally “Every Day is Like Sunday” (Morrissey’s second 45) was a superb meditation on 1970s England, the only one I remembered from having grown up there: the cheap trinkets at Blackpool, the Carry On movies,the comic actor Norman Wisdom, our hero of the downtrodden and ostracized.
In one rare moment of resignation, J voiced what we all denied:
we were all “ordinary boys” (and girls). And like all ordinary relationships, our very brief one did not last through the spring, interrupted by my attraction to the past when I should have been looking at the future. Later, in May, J snuck into my second floor apartment while I was sleeping and left a black earring on my dresser with a goodbye note that was so sad to read (true love, she said) but entirely unsurprising.
Very much enamored of her for a while, I wore the earring for many years but eventually, of course, lost it. (Picture of me above, wearing said earring, fall '88).
[Note: The above is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of my someday-to-be-published "rock'n'roll book."]
[Additional recent note: recently, I looked up Google Earth and located that awesome dome in the middle of that park in Texas. It looks eerie in a satellite photograph. And yeah, I rediscovered the name of the park too.]